The pressure to ensure its network can cope with the sudden surge in data usage sparked by the COVID-19 crisis drove Vodafone to accelerate full roll-out of its virtualized digital network architecture across Europe, which has reduced its core network costs by half.
The company has completed the deployment of network virtual infrastructure (NVI) using VMware’s vCloud NFV platform, enabling a single digital network architecture to underpin operations across its whole European footprint, and in 21 markets in total. The last market to go live was Albania, and Vodafone says it can now design, test and deploy new virtual network functions (VNFs) more quickly, securely and flexibly, enabling faster launch of new applications in response to market trends.
Almost half Vodafone’s global core network nodes providing voice and data services now run on vCloud NFV. It also gains the economies of a single infrastructure for all its European networks, which will also make it easier to roll out new services on a multinational basis, and to manage capacity across borders as required. Not only has it reduced the cost of its core network operations by half, mainly because of increased automation and preventative maintenance, but it has speeded up the deployment of new functions by 40%.
Vodafone is already a significant user of VMware’s telco cloud infrastructure and has implemented it in 57 data sites in Europe and 25 in its Africa and Asia-Pacific markets, since it originally signed a deal with the vendor in 2017.
At that time, VMware’s CEO, Pat Gelsinger, said this was the firm’s “largest-ever telco deal”, though it has since added other tier one operators such as AT&T, Deutsche Telekom and NTT Docomo. VMware claims more than 70 service providers use its NFV technology on the network side, while 90% use it in IT data centers.
The cloud-based infrastructure supports Vodafone’s voice core, data core and service platforms, carrying traffic on over 900 VNFs, up from 300 a year ago, when VMware products and services were live in 50 Vodafone sites in 15 countries. vCloud NFV is a carrier edition of the existing VMware Integrated OpenStack (VIO) for enterprise, allowing telcos to operate an OpenStack cloud on top of VMware’s NVI.
“Operating a reliable, agile network that can be more efficiently upgraded to maintain the quality of coverage has never been more important as Vodafone customers across Europe rely on the operator to provide critical connectivity and communications services during the COVID-19 crisis,” the operator said in a statement.
A more agile network infrastructure helps operators manage capacity, scaling up and down according to demand. Vodafone is adding 4Tbps of capacity to its fixed and mobile networks to cope with the data surge engendered by the pandemic response. Group CTO Johan Wibergh wrote in a blog post that his company has seen the data demand it had forecast for the next six months across its footprint, all emerging in just one month as more countries adopted stay-at-home measures.
Of course, this large-scale commitment to NFV and first generation virtualization looks risky at a time when advanced operators are starting to move beyond virtual machines towards fully cloud-native platforms based on containers and microservices. These promise to add a whole new level of agility and cost-efficiency by removing layers of overhead and allowing microservices to be combined and re-combined, Lego-style, to create an endless array of different functions.
But while NFC (network function cloudification) may be looking more shiny and new than NFV and OpenStack, it remains immature and untested at the kind of scale that Vodafone is achieving with its multinational roll-out. In an ideal world, the operator might have waited a year or so to be able to implement the most modern, agile approach, but the demands of the pandemic have presumably compounded telcos’ ongoing urgency to keep pace with rising user expectations.
In that context, if it delayed, it could either deliver an inferior user experience to those of rivals, which in the current time would be conflated with poor response to its customers in their hour of need; or it could add those 4Tbps, but at far greater cost and with limited flexibility in deployment. And reducing the need for manual intervention to avoid network issues is particularly valuable when there is limited availability of labor.
Vodafone is a good barometer of the spike in demand for data, and the cost of responding to that, because about 20% of global Internet traffic travels over its networks. Also, it has operations in some of the countries worst-hit by the virus so far, and ones which adopted social isolation policies early, such as Spain and Italy (see separate item under Key Issues for more on virus impact on traffic).
Overall, mobile data usage has increased by around 15% across Europe in the past month, with the highest rates, at around 30%, in Spain and Italy, according Wibergh. Fixed broadband usage has increased by more than 50% in those two countries, a higher rate than AT&T and Verizon have reported in the USA.
“This has put our mobile and fixed networks under strong pressure with evening peaks for mobile increasing by 20% in countries like Italy and Spain and fixed broadband traffic by around 35% in those countries, putting them near capacity during some parts of the evening,” Wibergh wrote. “We have therefore brought forward planned upgrades to add four terabits per second of additional capacity to our networks during March and April.”
In its cable and fiber networks, Vodafone has increased the number and size of interconnection points with other operators, and by the end of April will increase the capacity of some streaming provider caches by 60%, in order to reduce core and international bandwidth burdens.
Vodafone’s engagement with VMware has been part of its digital transformation program for data center and networks, nicknamed Project Ocean. Other suppliers have included Nokia Nuage, Mirantis, Huawei and more. Initially, the project focused on an end-to-end architecture geared to two sets of use cases – enterprise services, and centralized management of core services across a region.
When outlining the plan in 2017, Wibergh said Vodafone would have 50% of its network functions virtualized, supported by SDN, by 2020, and this would slash provisioning of new end-to-end services to less than one week. The architecture supports orchestration both at the domain layer and services layer to enable flexibility for different operating companies in the group to pursue their own business strategies. Each domain is associated with its own domain orchestrator and the overall architecture defines how domains interact with each other and with the services orchestrator.
Project Ocean followed on the heels of the completion of Vodafone’s $27.6bn Project Spring, which ended in 2016 and was focused on upgrading and expanding the physical LTE and fiber networks. It also included architectural changes – SingleRAN sites grew by 40 percentage points to 93%, for instance, though this was short of the target of 97%, while high capacity backhaul also failed to hit the original Project Spring goal of 98% (it achieved 90%, up 25 percentage points). In total, Vodafone added 43,000 new mobile sites and installed 115,000 Single RAN base stations.